This article, as part of the special 50th edition of PLA Notes, looks at specific tools and methods used by an alliance of three organisations in India that are engaged in initiatives to reduce urban poverty. The organisations are the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), Mahila Milan (savings cooperatives formed by women slum and pavement dwellers) and the Indian NGO SPARC. The article provides a background of the development of the tools and methods used by these organisations over the last 20 years, which are then linked to empowerment, learning and transformation: Poor people know what their problems are and generally have good ideas regarding what solutions they want. But they lack the resources or capacities to demonstrate that they can produce a solution. So the federations support their members to try out solutions in what can be termed a learning cycle. Some of the tools and methods covered in the article include savings and credit, mapping, surveys, community exchanges and house modelling. The author also describes how the Alliance (the grouping of the 3 organisations) works differently from other NGOs whose strategies tend to be about lobbying and advocating directly for change. Instead, the Alliance focuses on setting precedents and using these precedents to negotiate for changes in policies and practices. As a case study of this approach, the article describes the use of community toilet initiatives. Some of the outcomes include bringing communities together, expanding livelihood options for the participants (who gain useful skills and experiences from building the toilets), strengthening relations with municipal authorities, changing national policies, and enabling spaces for communities to learn. The article concludes with three overarching implication for change processes initiated in the community by the toilet projects, arguing that the poor make ideal partners in the projects and that the projects themselves need to be community managed and controlled. These are: organisation for empowerment; community-based problem solving; and learning to negotiate with city and state governments and other groups.
International Institute for Environment and Development